The New England Patriots rode a dominant ground game to defeat the Indianapolis Colts and return to the AFC Championship for the third straight season. It was a kind of playoff win Patriots fans aren't used to seeing, with the Pats rushing the ball 46 times and throwing it only 25.
The Patriots' backfield trio of LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen put up 234 yards on the ground with six touchdowns, while Tom Brady was efficient and didn't make the kind of mistakes that emerging star Andrew Luck (four interceptions) did.
The defense got great play from its rookies and youngsters, who came through with a number of big plays, as the group is jelling at exactly the right time.
The Patriots are now one win away from going to the Super Bowl, and while they wait to find out who they'll play, let's take a look at what we learned in a Brady-light playoff win.
Here are the takeaways!
Despite throwing four interceptions, Andrew Luck had some dead-on throws that kept the game close into the third quarter.
There's no question: Luck's future is bright, and he looks like the heir apparent to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in the AFC. But Luck isn't there quite yet.
Injuries have hurt the Colts almost as much as they've hurt the Patriots, and they'll be a better team next year after having these two playoff games. The big takeaway for them? Don't put yourself in an early hole; you won't always climb out of it.
The Patriots defense featured some inconsistency, especially on the three-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter. But overall, it had one of its better days of the season.
It held the Colts to just 6-of-15 on third down and 0-of-2 in the red zone.
With Alfonzo Dennard back and looking healthier than he had been in recent weeks, the Pats secondary was able to challenge Luck to make perfect throws. He certainly made some of them, but the Pats always bounced back and played tough the entire game.
Rookie Logan Ryan had another standout day and has blossomed into a promising young corner.
The Patriots can expect to see plenty more of Luck in the coming season, and it will be interesting to see how he evolves with his full complement of weapons and protection.
The one big lowlight of the game for the Patriots had to be the botched snap that went over Ryan Allen's head. Allen should've just kicked it out of the end zone to take the safety. Instead, he tried to pick it up and throw it. Luckily, the ball bounced out, and the Colts didn't get a touchdown.
You can forgive the rookie for the mistake in his playoff debut, but what made it even worse is that Allen was also injured on the play. That left Tom Brady to become the holder on field goals and Stephen Gostkowski to become the punter.
Gostkowski had five punts and pinned two inside the Colts' 20-yard line. This was another feather in the cap of Gostkowski. He's had one of the best seasons of his career.
Allen did not return to the game after the injury to his shoulder, and it leaves some doubt as to who will be punting for the Pats in the AFC Championship.
Dont'a Hightower caught some criticism this season when he struggled replacing Jerod Mayo. That was no easy task for a second-year linebacker who was playing out of position.
Hightower began to settle in late in the season and continued his strong play against the Colts, making a Tedy Bruschi-like interception that stopped the Colts' momentum in the second quarter.
Hightower led the Patriots with eight tackles, including three solo.
He'll have to keep up this kind of play for the Pats to get to the Super Bowl, but it looks like the Pats have a keeper in Hightower.
Jamie Collins had his coming-out party against the Colts in front of a national audience.
Collins' stats on the day: six tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, a pass defensed, an interception and three quarterback hits.
Simply put, Collins was all over the place and far exceeding any potential he had flashed during the season. With Brandon Spikes done, Collins saw an increase in his playing time and blossomed before our eyes.
Collins looks poised to carve out a significant role on the Patriots going forward. He's an athletic linebacker who can do a little of everything, and guys like that are hard to find.
The Pats found a gem in the second round.
I touched on it earlier this week, and it came to fruition against the Colts.
The Patriots running game simply could not be stopped.
After helping start a leaguewide spread offense trend in 2007 and watching defenses slowly evolve to protect against the pass, the Pats have now come full circle, unleashing a three-headed monster at running back to attack the defenses geared toward pass rush and coverage.
The Patriots are always judged against themselves of years past—the shutdown defense that won Super Bowls, the high-flying offense of 2007 or the Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez tight end-centric one. With a passing game that was in transition this year and also took a number of injuries, the Pats are suddenly a team that thrives off the run.
They found the identity late, with LeGarrette Blount leading the way, but it has protected Tom Brady without his usual assortment of trusted targets.
Can the Pats run all the way to the Super Bowl? It will certainly be interesting to find out. But make no mistake, this is unlike any other Patriots offense we've seen since 2004 with Corey Dillon, and that recipe took the team all the way to the Lombardi Trophy.
It was clear heading into the playoffs that Julian Edelman would be the focus of the Colts' defensive game plan.
Even with the extra attention, Edelman came through with six catches on nine targets for 84 yards, including a long of 27 and another that went 25. Edelman showed real explosiveness and continually fought for every last yard.
He also picked up two big third-down conversions and drew a pass interference on another third down. Edelman confirmed he is as good as he looked in the regular season.
Edelman will surely get plenty of attention this offseason as a free agent, but his progression from where he was as a rookie until now has been remarkable.
Another game, another record-setting performance for LeGarrette Blount.
Blount has blossomed into the most improved Patriot this season, and he has been unstoppable for the last two games.
Blount tied a Patriots record for rushing yards in a playoff game (166) and set the record for rushing touchdowns (four).
Patriots fans haven't seen running like this since the days of Curtis Martin, the player whose yardage record Blount tied. After years of Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Pats suddenly have a game-breaker at running back.
Strangely, it will likely be Blount being game-planned for this week and not Tom Brady. When was the last time Tom Brady wasn't the No. 1 focus?
Blount will be a free agent, but with the way he's taken his game to a new level in Foxborough, expect the two sides to figure something out. And maybe they can work out a package deal with his best bud Aqib Talib.
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have played 12 full seasons together, and this will be the eighth time they are playing in the conference championship game.
Only four times did they not have a shot to at least play in the Super Bowl: 2002 (missed playoffs due to tiebreaker), 2005 (lost AFC Divisional Game), 2009 (lost AFC Wild Card) and 2010 (lost AFC Divisional Game).
That's incredible and not something any team should do in the age of the salary cap, where all the rules are designed to pull teams toward .500.
This has been one of the most impressive years, if not the most impressive year, of Bill Belichick's Patriots career. The Patriots didn't flinch against the Colts, and that's a testament to the coaching staff and the job it's done with this team largely made up of fill-ins and replacements.
Clearly, the easier road to the Super Bowl would be to host the San Diego Chargers as opposed to traveling to Denver. But the Patriots have shown that they can win the game no matter who or where they play.
They're a scrappy bunch who don't know how to quit, and if their running game and young defenders continue to lead the way, they might just be peaking at the perfect time of the year.